Three things we learned from United’s 3-1 defat to Arsenal

Manchester United’s 3-1 defeat away to Arsenal at the Emirates can’t be much of a surprise to anybody. After just being on the receiving end of a pummeling from Liverpool, it was to be expected from the current crop of players.

That was United’s third loss in their last five in all competitions and a picture so different from the one we saw in the two team’s first meeting – just after Ralf Rangnick was officially appointed. 

With Michael Carrick still in the dugout as interim boss, United battled and battled en route to a 3-2 victory inspired by a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick. It was all ticking in that game going forward. The defensive issues persisted but it looked like perhaps it was going to be the start of a new manager bounce of sorts. 

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Well, United never really got such a bounce with Rangnick in charge except for around 30 minutes against Crystal Palace in the German’s Old Trafford bow. 

Now, with Arsenal all but burying United’s Champions League qualification hopes for next season, there is a lot to talk about as the club prepares for Erik ten Hag‘s arrival. And here are three things that we learned on another disappointing Saturday afternoon.  

United don’t create great chances 

United have had a lot of bad luck this season in terms of refereeing decisions. Naturally, when you’re underperforming, every decision that goes against you hurts more. But the standard of officiating in the Premier League this season has arguably been at its nadir.

At the Emirates, there were three or four decisions that immediately spring to mind that could have turned the game in United’s favor. Was Alex Telles’ clash with Bukayo Saka a penalty? That’s arguable. Was Ronaldo offside for that well taken finish? Not clearly or obviously. Was Eddie Nketiah in David de Gea’s line of vision for Granit Xhaka’s goal? Absolutely. The Spaniard had to unnaturally extend his neck around the striker in order to see anything. 

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We could sit here and talk about bad refereeing in England all day. But the truth of the matter is that United do not help themselves. Contrary to the popular opinion that United are awful at finishing, the Reds simply do not create many good chances. 

As per FBRef, United have scored 51 league goals so far this season from an expected goals rating (xG) of 49.1. That is not a statistic which exposes a poor finishing team. It shows a team that on average profits fairly off what they create, and that is a problem. 

Teams like Liverpool and Manchester City create an abundance of chances for their attackers to feed off. In games where they blow teams out of the water by four or five goals, they could easily score in double figures. United games never really feel like that. In fact, all of the teams that United’s rivals beat handily, the Reds tend to struggle mightily against. 

Attacking schemes and set patterns of play are things that Ten Hag and his staff will have to work relentlessly on in order to improve this team. Ronaldo cannot be the only Red to hit double figures and Mason Greenwood cannot still be the third highest scorer in the league with five goals if this club wants to progress. 

Midfield is non existent 

If we are being completely honest, any midfield pairing that a given United manager puts together from the players currently available is average at best. And while you will never have a squad full of world-class players, mixing average with average in every sector of the pitch will result with nothing short of an average product. 

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Statistics and deep analysis are not needed to establish that United have a bottom five midfield in the league – no need to even involve Europe’s elite. First and foremost, nobody at United except for Nemanja Matic is even an out and out ‘6’ that could balance things out. That’s one defensive midfielder in a squad of 25+.  

The most commonly preferred duo of Fred and Scott McTominay do some things well but they don’t really do anything greatly, all while doing a lot of things badly. That is not a good mix. 

Whether a team comes to Old Trafford or hosts United at their ground, all they really need is a semi well-executed press in order to completely dismantle the Reds’ engine room. And with United defenders being allergic to defending, that is a recipe for disaster. 

Admirably, ever since Rangnick took over he has steered away from the popular ‘McFred’ combo. But that doesn’t mean he found a solution within. Quite the opposite, actually. United just started to ship more goals and in even more ridiculous fashion. The back line went from being somewhat protected to bare bones exposed. 

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Arsenal too pierced through United’s midfield like a hot knife through butter. This time, it was a Matic and McTominay duo. United’s midfielders really struggle with defensive assignments and discipline and if that wasn’t enough, they are not very good at progressing the ball either. Matic is arguably the most progressive deep lying midfielder at the club – that is also respectable defensively – and he lost his legs half a decade ago. 

You are in trouble when – at any time – not even one of your two midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 can consistently drop deep to receive the ball, turn, resist the press and push the action upfield (we won’t even get into regulating the tempo, etc.). Fred sometimes tries but that quite frequently results in quality chances for the opposition – and this is one of his better seasons. This is a critical issue that has been code red for quite some time and perhaps this summer, under yet another manager, it will finally be addressed.

United need players that love to defend 

Defending is an art. You have to love it and be willing to sometimes put your head – amongst other body parts – where it hurts in order to win your battles. United don’t seem to have many of those characters. 

The only player that springs to mind as somebody who genuinely enjoys defending is Aaron Wan-Bissaka and he is currently in the process of being frozen out due to other limitations on the pitch. Even at 4-0 down at Anfield, the right-back was flying into last ditch tackles while deployed on the opposite side, trying to show some fight. 

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Other than the Englishman, you would be hard pressed to find someone at United who likes to get their shiny kit dirty. Diogo Dalot and Telles get lauded for their – non-existent – attacking contributions while being a winger’s dream to play against, just ask Saka and Mohamed Salah.

Victor Lindelof reads the game quite well but struggles mightily with aerials and foot races. Harry Maguire is good on the ball but has zero spatial awareness and mobility. Raphael Varane was once outstanding at all of the above in the white of Real Madrid – and has shown glimpses of greatness at United when not plagued by injuries. Phil Jones is a very 2010’s subject and Eric Bailly equals pure chaos and more often than not injures himself. 

Granted, nobody is perfect. Everyone has a weakness or two. But some cover up their weaknesses better than others. Would United’s defenders look better with a competent midfield in front of them? Maybe. But that is not an excuse either. Because the most frustrating part about United as a whole team this season is the lack of passion, commitment to the cause, and willingness to fight for the badge.

United didn’t lay a finger on a Liverpool player until the 85th minute when an academy graduate lunged into a late tackle on Jordan Henderson. Not many ‘hard’ fouls spring to mind from the Arsenal game either. 

United give their opponents too much time and respect on the ball and then wonder why there are rings being run around them. If you’re going to sit off your man then you have to be willing to defend. But when you don’t want to do either, be it because of laziness, complacency or just pure incompetence, then you get Manchester United of 2021/22.

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